As soon as Thorin approaches the house, the tension he's been carrying around all day at the forge eases and it feels like he can breathe again. He might even be smiling as he shoulders his way through the door, but -before he can open his mouth to bellow a greeting- the lads stampede out of the kitchen and throw themselves at him, clinging to each of his legs like the monkeys they are and shouting gleefully, "Uncle Thorin, you're home!"
Thorin doesn't squirm when Dis steps into the room and crosses her arms over her chest, but it's a near thing. He's covered in sweat and grime and now the boys are filthy too. She's always complaining about how impossible it is to keep them clean for dinner and he almost feels guilty about that. Thankfully, Dis doesn't look irritated, just fondly exasperated. "I've heated the bath for you. Better get in before the water gets cold," she says before herding him further into the house.
Or she tries to anyway. Fili and Kili refuse to let go of him and nearly cause Thorin to stumble, but he scoops up each child under his arm and carries them off to the bath. The lads shriek with laughter and Kili cries out, "Save us, Mama!"
"Dirty boys need to be cleaned up before they can have their dinner," Dis says, her tone solemn but her eyes bright with humor.
"Traitor!" Fili screams as she disappears back into the kitchen.
Getting the boys into the bath is almost as violent and messy as an actual battle, but finally he manages it and catches Fili long enough to scrub at his hair. He pauses, frowning when he catches sight of bruises all across his nephew's back. With the boys as wild as they are, it's not unusual for them to come home black and blue because of some roughhousing with the other youngsters, but this is different. The marks, already faint and fading as they are, look too large and deliberate to be from children playing. "What happened to your back?" Thorin demands, voice hard and angry.
Fili stills under his hands and even Kili stops splashing around, his dark hair dripping wet and eyes widening. "I fell," Fili says after a long moment.
"You fell," Thorin echoes. The lads flinch at his tone and Thorin struggles with himself, trying to keep his temper in check and failing. Not for the first time, he thinks about how Frerin would have been a better uncle for the boys instead of him. His brother may have been too brash and mischievous for his own good, but he was also the most easy going and forgiving dwarf Thorin had ever known. He never bothered to act the way a prince should and focused on family above all else. At the time, it exasperated him, but Thorin envies him for it now. Because he may know how to lead an army and fight wars, but he has no idea how to comfort his own nephews.
They finish bathing quietly and dinner is a solemn affair, although Fili and Kili force cheerful smiles and chatter away about nothing important. But it's not fooling anyone, especially their mother, and Dis glares at him across the table, her eyes silently demanding an explanation. He waits until his sister is in the other room doing the washing up before bring up the issue. "I don't want to worry your mother anymore than you do," he says as gently as he can. "But you must be honest with me. How did you get those bruises?"
Fili squirms in his seat, his expression pinched and troubled. Thorin considers how to push without raising his voice when Kili speaks up, his voice very small. "Fili was protecting me."
"What do you mean?" Thorin urges, when Fili shoots his brother a betrayed look and Kili falters.
Kili bites his lip for a moment before finally speaking again. Apparently a few days ago some of the village children tried to grab him, threatening to cut off his hair and stick it to his hairless face. "They said I don't look like a proper dwarf," Kili practically whispers and Thorin is tempted to hunt those children down and beat them.
"They even had a knife," Fili says suddenly, a scowl on his young face. "But I didn't let Kili go no matter how much they kicked and pulled at me. And after a while they left us alone."
Thorin doesn't want to think about what would have happened if those children had used that knife. It's bad enough Fili was hiding his injuries, but if it had been serious and gotten infected...? It's a terrifying thought. "I don't want either of you to keep secrets from me. You could have been hurt badly and no one would have known," Thorin says. The lads fidget unhappily until he rests a hand on top of their heads, one dark and one light. "But I'm very proud of you both."
"You're not angry?" Fili asks, surprised.
The question pains him like a physical blow. What kind of uncle is he that his nephews would fear him for something that wasn't even their fault? "No." He swallows hard. "No, I'm not angry. You did well protecting your brother."
The boys immediately grin with relief, beaming like sunrays, and throw their arms around his neck. And what else can Thorin do but close his eyes and wrap his arms around them?
Once the boys are put to bed, Thorin tells his sister about Fili's bruises. He is careful to not mention the knife, but Dis' mouth is set in a hard line and she growls out, "I'm going to find them and beat them until they can't walk straight."
Thorin almost smiles because they're so alike it's laughable, but instead he pours them both a drink. It's obvious that they need it.
By the time he drags himself to his room, he is well and truly drunk. Which is probably just as well, because when he finds his nephews asleep in his bed, he doesn't have the heart to send them away. Instead, he dresses down to his tunic and trousers and lays down with them. They sleepily curl up against him and he presses a kiss to the top of their heads. And while he will never be the uncle that Frerin would have been to them, he is all they have.
And, for now, it is enough.